Writing an essay about humor is no joke. And therein lies the problem. We all love to hear a good joke; many of us love to tell a good joke; but none of us would ever want to explain a good joke. In fact, if it's a good joke, it should require no explanation. When we have to look at a footnote to understand why something is funny, well, then — let's face it, it just "ain't."
And so I begin this essay with an apology for having to analyze a type of literature as seemingly spontaneous and transparent as comedy. Great tragedy, of course, often requires detailed and thorough analysis, but I hope to prove that even comedy can be enhanced by a little explanation.
Although we laugh for a variety of complex reasons, one peculiar element does seem to unite most comedies. In almost all humorous literature, we respond to a character's unfortunate situation or great distress. Literary critics have discovered that one particular comic incident is so universal that we call it the archetypal comic plot. An archetype is a myth, character, or storyline so common to all societies that it transcends merely being typical and moves into the realm of the archetypical. We're all familiar with this basic comic archetype: a man walks down the street and slips on a banana peel. No matter from what nationality we might be, we all find this situation more or less hilarious.
Almost every funny situation demands this type of humiliation or, even worse, the utter despair of the main character. Consider any common joke, the most popular and succinct type of comedy. Here is a joke selected not for its unique cleverness nor charm but rather for the typical source of its humor:
Mr. Jones is walking across a field in Northern Ireland. Suddenly he feels a gun jabbing at the back of his neck. He hears a voice from behind him say: "Don't turn around. I have only one question to ask you. Are you a Protestant or are you a Catholic?" The unfortunate man realizes that his answer will determine whether or not he lives or dies, but he has no idea what the safe answer is. But he does have a moment of inspiration and replies, "Well, actually I'm neither: I'm Jewish!" And he hears the voice from behind him exclaim: "Well, then, I must be the luckiest Arab in Belfast!"
I hope this joke made you laugh, but if it did, you must realize that you are at this very moment smiling about a poor innocent man who has just doomed himself to a most dreadful and undeserved death. Keeping in mind that the archetypal comic plot involved another unfortunate man slipping on a banana peel, you might start to wonder just how sick society's sense of humor seems to be.
It seems very odd that comedies revolve around life threatening situations. Why do we laugh? Is it because we can't wait to see whether the poor man who slips on the banana peel will bruise some ribs or even break his neck in the fall? Is it because we relish the thought of Mr. Jones being executed in Northern Ireland? Of course not. In fact, we never even think about the consequences of slipping on the peel nor giving the wrong answer to the gunman. It appears that what we find most amusing in these stories is the humiliating experience itself.
But now we must deal with why humor depends on someone's personal disaster. The disaster is actually not the source of the humor; rather, it is merely the catalyst. The true source of the humor has always been the stripping away of a person's sophistication. We laugh when a person's mask of worldly wisdom and urbanity falls away and reveals the vulnerable human face beneath it. And so comedy depends on humiliation and personal disasters because they force characters to give up their affectations. When a man slips on a banana peel, he can appear as many things — terrified, clumsy, embarrassed, ridiculous — but the one way he most certainly cannot appear is COOL. In the same way, Mr. Jones thought he was being very sophisticated when he tried to outwit the gunman by stating that he was Jewish. But we laugh when we discover that this attempt at cleverness actually made his crisis even worse.
Notice, though, that not everybody thinks the man slipping on the banana peel is funny. There is one person who does not: the man who is slipping. When we are across the street watching the man, hidden from his view, we find the situation hilarious. But if we are ever the central character of this accident, then we find it anything but funny. And if the victim happens to be our child or our mother, we see even less humor. Comedy, then, demands emotional and intellectual detachment. We must not sympathize or identify too strongly with the victim or the situation is no longer funny.
And think again about Mr. Jones in Northern Ireland. I told you that his name was Mr. Jones, but you instinctively knew that I was lying. You knew what his real name was: Mr. Never Existed. If you had actually believed that there were a real Mr. Jones, then the situation would be more tragic than comic. Tragedy also obviously depends on a person's misfortune (think of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Willie Loman), but the difference between comedy and tragedy is one of our involvement. Even though both comedy and tragedy focus on great distress, with tragedy the author makes US feel deeply for the characters and therefore we become emotionally involved in the suffering. With comedy, the author purposefully avoids having us identify with the suffering and makes the misfortunes so exaggerated and unreal that we are detached enough to find them very amusing.
Shakespeare is our greatest writer of comedies and tragedies, and the very titles of his plays teach us the essential difference between the two genres. He names his tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra. He always titles them for the main sufferers so we begin to identify with them even before the curtain goes up. But look at the names of his comedies: The Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labor's Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, All's Well That Ends Well. All of these are named for the situation rather than the characters. Shakespeare wants our attention in the comedies to be riveted on the hilarious circumstances rather than the pathetic characters who must endure them.
Tragedies depend on character; comedies depend on situations. That is the reason that the most common vehicle for comedy today — television — has accurately designated its shows as "sitcoms" or situation comedies.
Comedies tickle our intellect; tragedies aim straight for our hearts — thus the famous maxim "Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel.”
We expect to find that most tragedies end with at least one death; on the other hand, most comedies end with at least one marriage. Since comedy and tragedy are opposite in their ultimate effect, do these authors really feel that the opposite of death is marriage? That can't be — there have always been numerous romantic casualties of both sexes who could confirm that, with a little bad luck, marriage can be synonymous with death. The opposite of death, of course, is life, and comedy generally ends with marriage because when the audience witnesses a marriage at the conclusion of the play, they naturally think of the potential for children, or new life, that the marriage might produce.
This emphasis on life in comedy leads to one more essential component of humor. Death as we know it must be banished from all true comedy. Since dying is a universally depressing thought, comedy must invent a realm where death has no recognizable place at all. Think of how many jokes begin with someone dying and then going immediately to heaven where they carry on as though they had never died.
Perhaps the purest display of this essential deathless comic spirit can be found today on Saturday morning cartoon shows. There are many archetypal cartoon characters: Tom and Jerry, Sylvester and Tweety-Bird, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, but let's examine my own personal favorite — Wile E. Coyote and his arch enemy, the Road-Runner (of the "beep-beep" fame). This cartoon almost always begins with Mr. Coyote buying numerous sticks of Acme Dynamite which he plans to drop from a high butte onto the road runner passing beneath him. But what always happens? When the road runner passes beneath the butte, Wile E. releases the sticks only to discover that the long stringy fuses have become entangled with his own feet so that when he throws the sticks over, he plummets with them. The road runner looks up, pipes out his "beep beep" in a jovial tone, and zooms out of the way, just as Wile E. and the dynamite hurtle toward the ground together with one tremendous smoky explosion.
If this were real life and not comedy, the next scene would show medical attendants with body bags gathering up tiny pieces of what was left of Wile E. But since this is comedy, we are not at all surprised to discover that the next scene actually has Wile E. Coyote — looking very healthy and in one sneaky piece — purchasing more ammunition from his neighborhood Acme Dynamite outlet. All too often in real life our smallest and most innocent deeds lead to terrible consequences. But in the realm of comedy, even exploding with an arsenal of dynamite won't stop a coyote from trying once again to nab that elusive road runner. We laugh delightedly at our ultimate wish fulfillment — non-accountability.
Tragedies force us to see death as the one sad fate which unites us all. Comedy allows us to pretend that death does not exist. According to the Bible, death was brought into the world when Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple in the Garden of Eden. Genesis suggests that our greatest tragedy concerns a woman and a piece of fruit. It seems only fitting, therefore, that comedy — tragedy's fractured mirror image — would evolve from a man and a piece of fruit, substituting that delightfully slippery banana for the apple.
In both cases, the victims are unaware of what the fruit represents. Eve has no idea that tasting the apple will usher death into the world, nor does the anonymous traveler ever suspect that the peel of the banana is about to trip him up. Both are brought low, one literally and one figuratively. But Eve had been warned and yet disregarded the warning; that is her tragedy. The unsuspecting traveler was tripped for no apparent reason at all; and that is our comedy. He bears no responsibility for his misadventure, and in our imaginations we never see a cut or scrape on him — only his ego is bruised. This particular "fall of man" is painless, guilt-free, and of no lasting consequence.
All comedy enjoys this unique protection from ultimate human responsibility. The innocent are temporarily made uncomfortable, but no lasting damage is done. Because we live in a world where we are plagued by responsibilities which do indeed have lasting consequences, we turn to comedy as a magic balm or escape. Great humorists like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain conjure up comic worlds of hilarious misadventures and immortal shenanigans. And yet if the comedy is brilliant, we always see our own foolish selves within the silliest characters and most ludicrous plots. Although comic authors should not make us deal with the disastrous consequences of foolishness, as we must do in real life, we do tend to feel at least a superficial empathy for the butt of any comedy. It is this glorious identification we make that allows every laugh, including the last, to be ultimately on us.